How the Dalai Lama Works

The Dalai Lama visits Milan to speak with lawmakers. See pictures of Tibet.
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The Dalai Lama possesses an unusual brand of celebrity. He's a renowned figure of compassion, wisdom and patience. He's his beleaguered country's spokesman, fighting tirelessly for Tibet's autonomy from China. He's an author, a teacher and a speaker whose ticket sales would make most pop stars envious. But while his celebrity extends beyond traditional bounds to make him as recognizable as any president, pope or author, Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, still calls himself a "simple Buddhist monk." He spends 80 percent of his tightly scheduled life following spiritual pursuits, and devotes the other 20 percent to humanitarian issues, religious tolerance and the question of Tibet [source: Dalai Lama].

As a toddler, Tenzin Gyatso was recognized as the incarnation of the Dalai Lama -- Tibet's spiritual and temporal leader. Tibetan Buddhists believe that each Dalai Lama is the reincarnation of his predecessors who, in turn, are the manifestations of Avalokiteshvara, or Chenrezi, the patron saint of Tibet and Bodhisattva of Compassion. Bodhisattvas are enlightened beings who consciously choose to be reborn in order to help others achieve enlightenment. Tibetan Buddhists believe that the 14th Dalai Lama is the 74th manifestation of Chenrezi in a line that began with a Brahmin boy who lived during the Buddha's lifetime.

But the Dalai Lama is also an important political figure for Tibetans. He assumed temporal power just as China began to exercise military control over his country. Less than a decade later, he was forced to escape Tibet and set up an exile government in Dharamsala, India. Since then, he has raised awareness of his country's struggle with China while advocating nonviolent solutions to religious and political disputes. More recently, the now septuagenarian Dalai Lama has challenged China's attempt to name his successor.

In this article, we'll learn about the history and future of the Dalai Lamas, as well as the fascinating life of the 14th Dalai Lama.

History of the Dalai Lama

Tibet Image Gallery Buddhist Monks in Lhasa, Tibet wear maroon robes and distinctive yellow hats. See more pictures of Tibet.
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The Dalai Lama leads the Dge-lugs-pa or Yellow Hat Sect of Tibetan Buddhists. The Yellow Hats, who were founded in the late 14th century, restored discipline to monastic life and promoted academic rigor. They minimized the use of magical rites and imposed celibacy and abstinence from meat and alcohol. The Yellow Hats rose to predominance in the 17th century and helped bring about Tibet's unusually large monastic population. Until the Tibetan Uprising of 1959, about one quarter of the populace was in religious orders [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

The first Dalai Lama, Gedun Drupa, was born in 1391. He founded the Tashi Lhunpo monastery and wrote books on philosophy. Gedun Drupa and his successor Gedun Gyatso were officially abbots during their lifetimes -- the title of Dalai Lama was not adopted until the 1570s. The Mongolian king Altan Khan conferred the title, meaning "Ocean of Wisdom," on the third successor, Sonam Gyatso. Tibetans also use the name Rgyal-ba Rin-po-che or "Precious Conqueror" to refer to the Dalai Lama [source: Encyclopaedia Britannica].

After a string of four rulers who died in their youth, the 13th Dalai Lama, Thupten Gyatso, began to reform Tibet and reassert his position's political power at the beginning of the 20th century. He survived both British and Chinese invasions of Tibet, briefly living in exile in China and later India. During the Chinese Revolution from 1911 to 1912, he took advantage of the dying Manchu dynasty to expel its remaining forces from his country. Tibet became an independent country and remained so until the 1950s. The 13th Dalai Lama also bolstered his country's military, introduced currency and lightened some of the repressive aspects of monastic life.

By the 13th Dalai Lama's death in 1933, Tibet was on the path to modernization. In the next section, we'll learn how the Tibetan government found his successor.

The 14th Dalai Lama

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After the death of the 13th Dalai Lama, the Tibetan government began searching for his reincarnation, using mystical clues as guides. Because the head of Thupten Gyatso's embalmed body had rotated while it lay in state, turning from the south to the northeast, the government suspected that the future ruler would be found in that region of Tibet. Soon afterward, the Regent Reting Rinpoche had a vision of the sacred lake Lhamo Lhatso reflecting the Tibetan letters Ah, Ka and Ma. He interpreted "Ah" as a sign for Amdo, a northeastern province of Tibet. The Regent's vision of the lake was followed by one of a three-story monastery with a roof of turquoise and gold. Near the monastery was a tiny house with elaborate gutters.

Following the Regent's vision, a search party departed for Amdo, and decided that the letter "Ka" likely referred to the monastery at Kumbum -- a turquoise and gold-roofed structure. When the party came across a house with gutters made from juniper, they suspected they were close to their future ruler. They disguised themselves as travelers and stayed the night with the family to observe their 3-year-old son, Lhamo Thondup.

Lhamo had been born July. 6, 1935, to poor farmers in a struggling town. His infancy was normal, but he did exhibit some telling signs. Upon Lhamo's birth, his father made a sudden recovery from a severe illness. As a toddler, Lhamo demanded that he take his father's seat at the head of the table and would allow only his mother to handle his bowl. And perhaps most surprisingly, the young Lhamo seemed obsessed with Lhasa, Tibet's traditional and spiritual capital. He would pack bags, pretend to travel on horseback and exclaim, "I'm going to Lhasa" [source: Dalai Lama]. For the most part, Lhamo's family took no notice of the child's eccentricities. An older son had already been recognized as the manifestation of a high lama, and the family suspected they had reached a quota for prestigious reincarnations.

But when the disguised search party arrived at the house, its leader, Kewtsang Rinpoche, was confident that this was the right child. Lhamo immediately recognized Kewtsang Rinpoche as a monk and even knew from which monastery he came. When the members of the search party returned for a formal visit some days later, they brought several of the 13th Dalai Lama's possessions along with a set of decoy items. Lhamo correctly identified every item belonging to his predecessor with the proprietary statement "It's mine" [source: Dalai Lama].

The toddler was soon sent to the Kumbum monastery and eventually to Lhasa, where he was reunited with his parents. In 1940, Lhamo became Tibet's spiritual leader and took the vows of a novice monk. Lhamo Thondup was now Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

In the next section, we'll learn how the youthful 14th Dalai Lama assumed power in his country's most trying time.

The Invasion of Tibet

In 1956, the Dalai Lama (second from right) met with Mao Zedong (center), chairman of the People's Republic of China, in an attempt to establish diplomatic relations.
In 1956, the Dalai Lama (second from right) met with Mao Zedong (center), chairman of the People's Republic of China, in an attempt to establish diplomatic relations.

Over the next 10 years, the Dalai Lama pursued a monastic education directed toward a doctorate in Buddhist studies. He learned Buddhist philosophy, logic, Tibetan art and culture, Sanskrit, medicine, music, drama, phrasing, poetry, astrology and synonyms.

The Dalai Lama's scholarly education was also supplemented with intense lessons in foreign relations. By the late 1940s, China's position on Tibet had become increasingly aggressive. The People's Liberation Army was encroaching on the independent country's borders in the name of liberating its people from imperialists.

With the looming threat of Chinese military action, Tibetans thought it was time for the Dalai Lama to assume political power. On Nov. 17, 1950, Tenzin Gyatso was enthroned at the Norbulingka Palace -- he was only 16 years old. After appointing a monk and lay prime ministers, he and his advisors decided to send delegations to the United States, the United Kingdom and Nepal to win allies in the struggle with China. A fourth delegation would be sent to China to dissuade the country from staging an invasion.

The first three delegations returned without success -- Tibet and the Dalai Lama would apparently have no allies. The fourth delegation was received in China but was soon forced into one-sided negotiations with the powerful military country. As the Dalai Lama listened to the radio one evening, he heard a shocking announcement: His representatives from Tibet had signed a document called the Seventeen-Point Agreement under pressure. The agreement allowed the People's Republic of China to "liberate" Tibet.

Unable to resist the unauthorized agreement, the Dalai Lama spent the next several years trying to bar China from outright takeover and placate Tibetan resistance fighters from entering a lopsided fight. But by 1959, the situation had worsened. The Dalai Lama received an ominous invitation from a Chinese general to attend a dance performance, under the condition that he would bring no soldiers - only unarmed guards. Fearing for their leader's safety, tens of thousands of Tibetans began to congregate in Lhasa at his palace. A consultation with the oracle advised that the Dalai Lama should leave the country immediately. On the night of March 17, 1959, he disguised himself as a soldier, shouldered a gun and fled with a small escort through the throngs of his people.

The Dalai Lama's harrowing escape eventually brought him to Dharamsala, India. In the next section, we'll learn about the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan government in exile.

The Dalai Lama in Exile

The Dalai Lama has traveled the world in his exile from Tibet. He visited Washington, D.C., in October 2007 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
The Dalai Lama has traveled the world in his exile from Tibet. He visited Washington, D.C., in October 2007 to receive the Congressional Gold Medal.
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The Dalai Lama and his escaping entourage convened at the Kyichu River, joined with the Dalai Lama's family and hiked toward the Indian border. India agreed to provide asylum for the Tibetan leader and other refugees in Dharamsala. Once installed in his new headquarters, the Dalai Lama quickly repudiated the Seventeen-Point Agreement and set up a government in exile. His appeals to the United Nations in 1959, 1961 and 1965 were answered with the resolves on Tibet. The Dalai Lama also drafted a Tibetan constitution promising democratic freedom and laying out guidelines for Tibetans living in exile.

He also embarked on a multicontinental, nearly half-century tour to spread his message of compassion and to heighten the world's awareness of Tibet. In 1989, the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded the Dalai Lama the Nobel Peace Prize for his humanitarian work. While he might be best known for his advocacy of an autonomous Tibet, the Dalai Lama also promotes religious tolerance and human values like compassion, forgiveness and contentment.

Although Tibetans are no longer persecuted to the extent they were in the bloody days of China's Cultural Revolution, political tensions remain high. In September 2007, China enacted laws that regulate the reincarnation of living Buddhas. The atheist state has a history of showing an unusual interest in religious affairs: China has famously battled with the Vatican over the Pope's right to appoint bishops. But China's enactment of Order Number Five, which calls for "living Buddha permits" and bans reincarnation in certain areas, clearly demonstrates an attempt to control Tibet and the Dalai Lama's influence.

In response, the 14th Dalai Lama has suggested several ideas to get around China's influence and invalidate the claims of any future Chinese-appointed puppet ruler. The simplest solution would be to reincarnate outside of Tibet. Most Tibetans believe this is likely since the point of rebirth is to continue working for others -- something that would be impossible under Chinese control. The Dalai Lama might also choose to name a successor while still alive or hold a referendum for Tibetans to decide if they want to continue the position after his death. China decries these solutions as desecrations of religious tradition.

To learn more about the Dalai Lama, reincarnation and religion, look at the links on the next page.

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More Great Links


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